TV icon Valerie Harper, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, is longtime gay ally

Her famous TV character of Rhoda Morganstern resonates with gay fans

TV icon Valerie Harper, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, is longtime gay ally
08 March 2013

Valerie Harper, an American television icon with legions of gay fans, has announced that she has brain cancer and could have as little as three months to live.

The 73-year-old actress, best known for her portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the spinoff series Rhoda, got the diagnosis on 15 January but has only just gone public in People magazine.

Harper has leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain.

‘I don’t think of dying,’ she tells the magazine. ‘I think of being here now.’

Her underdog character of Rhoda was on television for nine years – four years on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and five years on Rhoda. The actress won four Emmys for her portrayal.

Harper spoke with The Advocate in 2006 about why she thought Rhoda was so popular with gay fans.

‘Rhoda was somewhat insecure but also very courageous,’ she said. ‘In Minnea­polis she was an outsider; she was Jewish and a New Yorker. She was always chiding Mary about how straight she was. Rhoda had an artistic streak too — I mean, she was a window dresser, but she made the best of it. And her wardrobe was outrageous; she wore those big earrings and crazy outfits. She never wore beige.’

The actress knew immediately, in 1970, that Rhoda had connected with the gays.

‘One of the earliest interviews I did about Rhoda was with [late author and AIDS activist] Vito Russo, who came to my dressing room to talk with me for The Advocate,’ Harper said. ‘My manager, who was gay, said, “Are you sure you want to do an interview for the gay press?” And I said, “Of course!” Vito was lovely — he had a star quality himself. We lost him way too soon. I’ve always felt very strongly about human rights, for blacks, women, and gays. Our Constitution is about equality for all — that’s got to mean something to all of us.’

‘I’ve always been so ­impressed with the way gays responded to (the AIDS) crisis in their community,’ she added. ‘They rallied the troops and protected the family. I think it’s ­incredible­.’

The grim health diagnosis occurred when Harper was in rehearsals for a national tour of the play Looped in which she played actress Tallulah Bankhead. She had earned a Tony Award nomination for best actress when the show was on Broadway.

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